SFC Black, Lt. Reilly, and the Needle

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Mon, Sep 26 - 9:00 am EDT | 2 weeks ago by
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    Lines of Departure - Panama

    Do I need to say it? Very well: Now this is no shit.

    Before getting into any depth with this (oh, yes, very much) true story, I probably ought to wax a little lyrical about the overall setting. This took place in 1982, in Panama, in what had once been the Panama Canal Zone, on a range somewhat north of Empire Base Camp. All the dramatis personae were assigned to the 193rd Infantry Brigade (Panama).

    The 193rd was an unusual organization. If you ever wondered what happened to the brown shoe Army of the 1930s, the answer is it changed to black shoes and black and green boots, but in every other respect packed its bags, moved to, and settled itself into Panama. The 193rd remains, to me, the beau ideal of what a regular combat force of Americans could and should be. A few interesting tidbits on the 193rd would include:

    1. It was the farm team and (not really much of a) rest spot for the Ranger Battalions, to the extent that, when there were two such, at one time both were commanded by men who had been my former battalion commanders in Panama. Conversely, in the company I spent most of my lieutenancy in, three of the four platoon sergeants, something like seven of the nine rifle squad leaders, a bit over half of the fire team leaders, and a fair sprinkling of the rank and file came from one or another of the Rangers Batts.
    2. The brigade commander, one K. C. Leuer, had been the first battalion commander of First Ranger Battalion.
    3. Each of the three infantry battalions, one of which was mechanized, of the 193rd, at that time, fired more ammunition, 4.2” and below, than the entire 82nd Airborne Division.
    4. It was, shall we say, an unusually “hands-on leadership” kind of place. I discovered that the rest of the Army was not like that when, after leaving Panama and finishing the Advanced Course at Benning, I went on my first run with a battalion. As usual, the redundant officers ran in the rear. One young troop started to fall out of the run a couple of miles into it. He wasn’t dying. He wasn’t injured. He was just lazy and undisciplined. I put my hand in the middle of his back and just shoved him back into the formation. Not only was he shocked, the other officers were shocked speechless. They didn’t realize you could get away with that kind of thing. It would have been perfectly normal in the 193rd; indeed, it would have been dereliction not to have helped the kid along, so to speak. Oh, and yes, the boy finished the run with the formation.
    5. Safety? What was that? If somebody got shot on a maneuvering live fire1 range – and every rifle company live fired some thirteen times a month, so it did happen sometimes – we didn’t stop training; we called in a dustoff2 and FIDOd3 right on.
    6. Discipline, much of which welled up from the ranks, themselves, was unusually fierce. Platoon sergeant doesn’t like a troop’s haircut? No problem; he sits the boy down on a stool and shaves his head. New troop on a miserable waterless movement to contact over extremely rough and hilly terrain, under a blazing sun, says he isn’t going a step further? No problem; the other riflemen beat him half senseless, then add thirty pounds to his load, and then ensure, with whatever painful coercion is needed, that he does not fall behind.
    7. The Marines like to think that “every Marine is a rifleman.” Post boots, though, they really don’t do much to maintain with their support types a rifleman’s mindset and skill set. He can probably still shoot, but actual combat would be an iffier proposition. In the 193rd of the day, the headquarters companies of the infantry battalions, at least, conducted live fire training, albeit limited to the practical defense of their units while stationary or moving.

    Which brings us to Lieutenant Reilly and SFC Black, the latter being the medical platoon sergeant and platoon sergeant for the exercise (and, though legitimately injured before graduation, a Ranger School classmate of Reilly’s until Black was medevaced out, sometime in the Mountain Phase, I think it was).

    It was, however, an unfortunate truth that, while the 193rd could train its support folks to fight, the show still had to go on. Meals had to be cooked, paperwork processed, wrenches turned, gasoline and ammunition delivered, and Band Aids applied. Generally, this was handled by splitting the support echelons roughly down the middle, with half doubling up their normal workload, while creating ad hoc platoons from the rest. Generally, officers would be detailed for the exercise from whoever could be made available. It was less than ideal, but way better than doing nothing to train the rear to fight.

    This was how Reilly, a grunt officer, ended up with a platoon composed of medics, personnel admin types, truck drivers, cooks, and such, and with a medic senior non-com for a platoon sergeant.

    And we meet our green-clad maniac, as he excavates a hole, somewhere on Empire Range, Panama…4




    It was hotter than Hell in the Panama Canal Zone and, what with an ocean on each side and a big lake in the middle, plus anything up to two hundred and seventy inches a year of rain in some parts of it, unbelievably muggy. In this case, the regular afternoon shower had come and gone, provided a very brief period of relative cool followed by “Oh, my freaking God; are you sure we’re not under water?”

    While his radio-telephone operator lay prone on security, a cursing Reilly dug in the sudden mud. He used the shovel – a real D-handled shovel, not the silly folding thing – to lever a large rock from the mud, then bent and pulled it out of the muck, tossing it to the side.

    “Save that one for the burster layer,” he told the RTO, then told the soldier to take over digging, because, “I need to troop the line.” He did, too. I mentioned hands on leadership, above. An aspect of that was that the support troops weren’t infantry. They needed a lot more in the way of, “No, this is how you set your left and right limit stakes” and – *jump*jump*jump* – “No, that overhead cover is too weak. Take it apart and start over. Yes, I mean with real logs.” The kids were generally willing enough, but they just didn’t really have the training and experience. Giving them that was a huge part of the point of the exercise.

    Pulling on his load carrying equipment, checking to make sure he still had the detonator for the claymores, and taking rifle in hand, Reilly walked the line of troops busily digging fighting position. Shovels were scooping, picks picking, and dirt flying. Like I said, the kids weren’t lazy, except for…

    Reilly came upon a shallow scraping, next to which was one Private Gilbert, a cook. Gilbert, himself, was asleep, though he’d propped his face on his rifle in an attempt to look alert.

    It wasn’t just a hands on leadership kind of unit; boots had their place, too. Reilly’s mud-encrusted boot connected with the Gilbert’s midsection, hard enough to sting if not to raise a bruise.

    “Wake up!”

    “I wasn’t sleeping, sir,” the private lied.

    “Bullshit,” Reilly said, squatting down. Grabbing both sides of Gilbert’s helmet, he forced the private’s eyes generally forward and asked, “Do you see that copse of trees over there, Gilbert?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “That’s the OP. Should be two men but we just don’t have enough. Now get your ass out there and relieve the man on duty so he can work on his hole, since you’re too lazy to work on yours. Do you know what you do on an OP, Private?”

    “Yes, sir. Keep alert, look out, report anything unusual or any approach of an enemy.”

    “Good. In this case, an enemy would be represented by a target being raised. Go. Now.”

    Reilly saw the cook off then, shaking his head, turned to walk the rest of the line. Things were basically okay further on, and the medics manning the fifty caliber over on the left flank were doing a fine job entrenching themselves and it. That, he attributed to his platoon sergeant for the exercise, Sergeant First Class Black, now down in a hole, covered with mud, while slinging spoil out of the hole onto a poncho laying next to it.

    Having exchanged pleasantries, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, with Black, Reilly looked over at the copse and saw a suspiciously relaxed figure in the form of one Private Gilbert.

    Thoroughly pissed off, Reilly stomped off to the copse where, just as it had seemed from a quarter of a mile or so back, Gilbert was dead asleep. The next kicked into the private’s midsection was less gentle than the first had been. “Wake up, goddamit,” demanded the lieutenant.

    The first words out of the private’s mouth were, “I can’t, sir; I’m sick.”

    This changed everything, of course. Reilly asked, in a very concerned tone, “Oh, you’re sick are you? Well we can’t have that. We’ll have to see to it.” He stood then, shouting out, “Sergeant Black?!?!?”

    Black immediately stood to a reasonable facsimile of attention, answering, “Sir!?!?!?”

    “Private Gilbert here says he sick. See to him, would you?”

    “Sirrrr!” answered Black, cruelty dripping from the single syllable.

    Reilly could see Black picking out the two biggest medics from the .50 cal crew, grabbing his aid bag and his poncho, and then the three of them racing for the ill cook.

    Gilbert, by the time Black and company had half closed the distance, suddenly remembered the Sergeant Black method of dealing with malingerers in the field. “Sir,” he said, “I beginning to feel better.”

    “Nonsense, Private,” Reilly insisted. “You’re ill, you look like death warmed over…Sergeant Black!!!!!”


    “Hurry, I think the boy’s gone delirious on me here!”


    “I’m not sir; sir, I’m feeling much better. Really I am.”

    “Hurry, Sergeant Black; hurry! I don’t know how much longer Gilbert can last!”

    Then suddenly Black and his two chosen assistants were there. Like clockwork, the two large medics from the Ma Deuce got on each side of the private, picking him up bodily, even as Black unrolled the poncho unto the ground with a single, well-practiced flip of the wrists. The two bruisers (it’s rare you can call a medic a “bruiser,” but in this case…”) carried Gilbert to the poncho, slammed him down…hard…and then sat on him.

    From his aid bag, Black drew the biggest, ugliest, crudest IV needle ever designed by the diseased mind of man. Rumors abounded that the needle, of which it was also rumored there was only one, had been bequeathed to Black by his great-great grandfather, who had likely been a medic in the trenches in the Great War. It was also said to be rusty but that was base calumny; it was clean and sterile. However, it really was frigging huge.

    Gilbert saw the needle. “I’M NOT SICK!” the private screamed. Then he begged, “Oh, please…oh, please, I’m not sick.”

    “Damn, this is serious, Sergeant Black,” Reilly said. “Better hurry.”


    Black put a hand to Gilbert’s head and shook his own. To Gilbert, he whispered, “This is really going to hurt you a lot more than me.”

    Then he stuck him.

    The private shrieked, then begged some more. “Oh, God, no…please…I’m not SICK!”

    “Dammit, sir, I missed,” said Black, looking suitably distressed.

    A smiling Reilly said, “Dammit, Sergeant Black, you missed. Well…train to standard, not to time. Stick the malingering son of a bitch again.”


    “YeeaARRRGHGH! I’m not sick! I’m not sick! Oh, please, leave me alone; I’m not sick!”

    “Dammit, sir, I missed again.”

    “Dammit, Sergeant Black. I don’t know what our medical platoon has come to. Well, no doubt you need training and Gilbert needs care so ‘Train to standard…’”

    “…not to time. Yessir.”

    “Aiaiaiaiai!” Blood began to flow pretty freely at that point.

    By fourteen stickings later, there was blood – I mean a LOT of blood – flowing across the poncho’s plastic surface and gathering in the low spots.

    Gilbert, weeping like a baby and quivering like Jell-O, continued begging to be allowed to go back to duty.

    Black looked up and gave Reilly a single raised eyebrow. Do you think he’s had enough?

    With a sigh, Reilly took one knee. He whispered to Gilbert. “Are you sure, Private, that you’re not so sick you can’t do you duty?”

    “Between sobs, Gilbert answered, “I’m” – sniff – “sure” – sniff – “sir….” sniff… “Please…Puhleeze don’t stick me anymore.”

    Reilly lifted his chin at the sergeant, who gave one last – this time properly done – jab, raising a final howl of pain.

    Oh, of course Gilbert stayed on the OP. He just had an intravenous needle and drip in him while he did. And he didn’t go back to sleep.


    1 Think of conducting a deliberate attack, movement to contact, night ambush, anti-armor ambush, raid, or any other reasonable mission, using live ammunition against an array of targets set up to replicate an armed enemy. It’s not really that dangerous if you know what you’re doing, but the prospect of career death from an accident makes most Army (and Marine) live fire exercises among the worst training possible. Not so, however, in Panama.

    2 Medevac helicopter

    3 FIDO means Fuck It and Drive On.

    4 A fictionalized and perhaps dramatized version of these events appeared in the novel, M Day.

    Photo by iStock /Getty Images Plus

    Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.

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